Speech On Conciliation With America Quotes

Edmund Burke

"I Do Not Know The Method Of Drawing Up An Indictment Against A Whole People"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: When he gave this speech in the House of Commons, Edmund Burke believed that it was possible to frame legislation which would end the distrust of the American colonists and bring peace between The Colonies and Great Britain. He points out that he is not searching for anything but simple peace, and that he is speaking with good intentions and genuine simplicity of heart. He states that the number of persons living in the American Colonies has been growing rapidly, and he cites the extent of the trade between The Colonies and Great Britain, illustrating its growth between 1704 and 1772. He suggests that to use force on the colonists will be but temporary and uncertain in its results; that the American colonists are the descendants of Englishmen, "not only devoted to liberty, but to liberty according to English ideas, and on English principles," and he notes that one Englishman is the unfittest person in the world to try to argue another Englishman into slavery. He tries to make the point that the British government, in any attempt to conciliate the Americans, must be willing to admit past mistakes and must cease to regard rebellious colonists as criminals:

At this proposition I must pause a moment. The thing seems a great deal too big for my ideas of jurisprudence. It would seem to my way of conceiving such matters, that there is a very wide difference in reason and policy, between the mode of proceeding on the irregular conduct of scattered individuals, or even of bands of men, who disturb order within the state, and the civil dissensions which may, from time to time, on great questions, agitate the several communities which compose a great empire. It looks to me to be narrow and pedantic, to apply the ordinary ideas of criminal justice to this great public contest. I do not know the method of drawing up an indictment against a whole people. . . . I hope I am not ripe to pass sentence on the gravest public bodies, intrusted with magistracies of great authority and dignity, and charged with the safety of their fellow-citizens, upon the very same title that I am. I really think, that for wise men this is not judicious; for sober men, not decent; for minds tinctured with humanity, not mild and merciful.